Over lunch one afternoon, cousins T.C. Christensen and Ron Tanner were discussing their next film project. The two had recently collaborated in making Only A Stonecutter and Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story, short and inspirational DVDs of two remarkable men who contributed much to the building of the kingdom, both literally and figuratively. (T. C. already had an impressive list of film credits: Touch of the Master’s Hand, Praise to the Man, Gordon B. Hinckley: A Giant Among Men, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, Emma Smith: My Story, Testaments, Forever Strong, and The Work and the Glory.) This time T.C. and Ron wanted to make a full-length feature film together---a huge endeavor both artistically and financially. At first, they talked about filming the Sweetwater Rescue, then decided to encompass the Martin and Willie handcart trek companies.
T.C. researched the details of several families who traveled with the James Willie and Edward Martin companies in 1856. Eight of the ten handcart companies that trekked to Zion during the years 1856 to 1860 had relatively little hardship and few deaths. However, when one thinks of the handcart trek, the Martin and Willie companies come to mind because of the extreme suffering, starvation, and snow these pioneers experienced.
17 Miracles is more than a story of struggle and deprivation, though that is compellingly portrayed. It is a story of faith and miracles and of hope and redemption. Though stories are combined from both companies into one company and are not necessarily in chronological order, every story is true---and miraculous.
Much of the script relies on the journals of Levi Savage, who was a subcaptain in the Willie Company. He is also the central figure in the movie (played by Jasen Wade). As a member of the Mormon Battalion a dozen years earlier, Levi had been with the group who discovered the remains of the Donner Party, which had been caught in impassable snowstorms in the Sierra Mountains in California. Haunted by what he encountered, Levi pleads with James Willie not to leave Florence, Nebraska, in such a late season of the year. Captain Willie argues that the company cannot stay there and has to go on. Levi supports the decision and pledges to die with them if necessary.
There is humor and laughter and fun and games along the trail. There are stories of young love and old love, and of making do and especially of doing without. But it is the faith and testimonies of these Saints, many of whom gave their all in going to Zion, that infuse the film. There is no doubt that the Lord was with them on this journey as miracle after miracle is portrayed, from a woman’s drunken husband being unable to recognize his family in plain view on a train, to a pie appearing on the trail for a woman who felt she could not go on, to two young girls praying to be protected from rattlesnakes.
Unlike the Donner Party, the handcart pioneers are magnified in their extremity; they strengthen their faith and become more Christlike in their actions as they endure such harsh conditions.
Though none of T.C. Christensen’s ancestors were handcart pioneers, he said, “The experience of doing research gave me a great affinity towards them. Our history as members of the Church is so rich with wonderful stories and amazing people. Bringing some of these stories to life is rewarding.” He found that the descendants he met truly honor their ancestors. Over 80 of the 285 extras were descendants of these pioneers. Doug Wilson, is a descendant of a woman who, as her life was ebbing out on the trek, said, “I died facing Zion.” Doug, his wife, Jeannette, three daughters, and ten grandchildren were extras for several days. “It was really special to participate in the making of the movie,” Doug said. “We had a great spiritual feeling doing so.”
Fifteen-year-old Brinley Bywater also participated as an extra, pulling a handcart in a deluge of rain. In late June, she will be participating with her stake on their pioneer trek. She commented, “I thought the movie was powerful, and I felt the Spirit really strong while watching it. It made me so grateful for the pioneers. 17 Miracles was an eye-opener as to what the purpose is of going on trek and what we’re going to do.”
Chad Wright, who is a descendant but not in the movie, has been interested in his pioneer heritage since his teens. He frequently hosts pioneer re-enactments with his wife and children, all dressed in period clothing. “I felt the movie was wonderful and moving,” Chad said.
Miracles occurred in the production of the movie as well in the lives of the pioneers. Ron said, “We had many tender mercies, from finding locations, the right kind of weather---snow when we needed it, frozen water on the Jordan River with a warm spring under it, getting permission to film in a cave, and no injuries.” The filming of the story of Sarah Franks and George Padley is another production miracle. According to T.C., their story “is one, if you were a Hollywood writer, you couldn’t come up with such a great story. They fall in love on the trail and decide to wait until they get to Zion to be married.” Sarah and George create a little love sign that they often give to each other on the trek. However, after George carries a number of people across the icy Platte River, he succumbs. In the script, Sarah is to give that sign as George is
Ron said the driving force for him to make 17 Miracles was a statement of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s that he “could never get over being thankful” to the handcart pioneers and urged Church members to read and reread these stories to children and grandchildren. Ron stated, “Many of our children and grandchildren likely will not read these stories, but they may be more inclined to watch a dramatic portrayal of the events. That’s why we did it.”
Both T.C. and Ron feel that a historical movie has to be relevant to our day. “The pioneers’ faith and strength can give us courage for what we face,” Ron said. “It must have relevance to help us live our lives now,” T.C. commented. While most of us are not descendants of the members of the Martin and Willie handcart companies, yet as members of the Church, we all share in that heritage and can be fortified and inspired by and be grateful for their stories.